Friday, May 27, 2011

Navigating debt and gratitude: a student loan milestone

June, 1988
May, 1993
May, 1998

These months and years mark the time I graduated from high school, college and seminary, respectively. None of these education milestones have caused me to look back and look ahead like the date of May 26th, 2011. That is the date that Sallie Mae congratulated me in a letter on the status of my student loans becoming "paid in full."

Debt (both financial and in general) is an odd concept. After a societal combination of love affair and ignorance of financial debt for decades, it's falling out of favor. However, debt is never an end in itself and becomes a path to some opportunities. Regardless of your perspective on debt (and there are many), as a pastor I know debt and shame are inextricably linked (I feel a strange sense of vulnerability even writing this post). I've hosted several classes at the congregations I serve where debt is a topic of learning and discussion, and the fear and shame related to debt is palpable. Though I'm not proud of the student loan debt accumulated in my late teens and through most of my twenties, there is also an curious connection to debt and gratitude. In paying off my student loans, I remember some of the people and systems that knit gratitude in my being in the midst of something sometimes shame-ridden.

It's one thing to earn a diploma and degrees through the generosity of others and personal perseverance; it's another thing to finance it. I don't have many degree holders in my family, but many of them thought it was important that I have an education and that I have many opportunities. Though my family could not pay for my entire education, they helped along the way.

My family came to visit me at the Univeristy of Kansas and Minnesota State University-Mankato, places where I wanted to go, 1800 miles away from home. They offered encouragement. Mom and Dad and Grandparents gave me hugs in person and from afar, with checks and cash in them. They scraped money together so I could learn and grow.

Friends and their families took me in. The Volansky Family in St. Louis gave me a home away from home, even after I left the University of Kansas. If I couldn't get to the Seattle Metro, if I could just get to St. Louis, I was treated like a brother or son.

When I married Melanie, I saw that she was wonderfully responsible with an amazing work ethic. Her education cost more than mine (she graduated from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota), yet she worked her way through seminary and carried smaller amounts of debt. When we were married, my student loan debt became our student loan debt. She was gracious, loving, generous and persistent so that we would pay off that debt.

Something I learned after my education was that legislators along the line created a subsidy so that I carried only a partial burden of the interest. The plethora of perspectives about federal subsidies for student loan debt still make my head spin both in macro and micro frames of reference, but it's possible that without those subsidies, I would still be paying off the debt.

Professors and teachers often work at a substandard wage because they love to make the learning connection with their students. My respect for my teachers overflows; I am in awe of their gifts and generosity.

Every so often in my student mailbox at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, I received a blank thank you card addressed to a seminary donor. I was asked to write in that thank you card for the seminary donor. Though many pastors who served many more years than me remember a day when seminary tuition was minimal, I learned in thank you card writing how many people faithfully gave in order to finance my theological education. I spent numerous dollars. In the big picture, people who knew nothing of me but my desire to learn more about God, church and service, contributed so that I could be equipped to be a pastor.

Both my home congregation of youth, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Olympia, WA, and Lutheran Campus Ministry at Minnesota State University-Mankato, pulled together resources to support my theological education. 

I probably forgot a few people and systems, but that is not intentional.

(Added 1:33pm Pacific--I did forget)
Judicatories are also working to address student loan debt. The South Dakota Synod (ELCA) set up a fund that made multiple debt payments on my student loans during my 8.5 years of service there. They recognized that many Lutheran congregations in South Dakota may not be able to pay a wage that could knock out student loan debt effectively. I hope that fund has grown and gained a wider scope. It helped me, and I am thankful.

Recently I was reminded about razor sharp edges of education, ministry, debt, shame, pain and opportunity at Unconference11, a gathering of people passionate about the life of the church. I heard several conversations and frustrations about student debt. I know the woven feelings of frustration, shame and gratitude intimately. I live(d) in the moccasins of the indebted. Without getting too happy as to depict glibness, I wanted to let my new friends and colleagues know that it was possible to be a pastor who survived student loan debt. Regardless of how education is financed, collective sacrifice is necessary. How that happens in detail, I'm not sure. I take this milestone of "paid in full" as an opportunity to live in gratitude. At least in the life of the church, we can wrangle about economic, theological and ecclesial philosophies and applications about debt and education, but gratitude is the best compass for navigation.


  1. As one still struggling to pay off seminary loans, thank you for giving my hope that there will be a day that I receive a paid in full letter. Also, thanks for the reminder of gratitude for all those that care about me known and unknown that supported my education.

  2. Christopher, your story contributed to this story. So I say thank you as well. Looking forward to working and hanging out together in the future.

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